Friday, September 26, 2008

The Censorship Issue

Ever since I read an article recently reporting that Vice-Presidential hopeful Sara Palin tried to blacklist the Harry Potter books from libraries in Alaska, I’ve been obsessing about it. (Did she really try to fire a librarian?)I confess not to be an expert on these matters. None of my books on art and artists have ever been put on a censorship list to my knowledge. But, of course, despite my ignorance, I’m filled with opinions on the subject. Actually when I wrote No Dragons to Slay in 1985, a YA novel about a teenaged boy with cancer, the book was banned at several libraries in small towns in the south. Apparently it was because the main character, Thomas Newman, used several four letter words, such as damn and hell, in dialogue. However, if you are a 15 year old boy who loses his hair and is sick from chemotherapy, in your worst, most angry moments, you might say something stronger than “Gosh I’m having a terrible day.” I felt the dialogue was appropriate to the story. I was surprised that the book was censored because it never occurred to me that anything I might write would be seen as controversial. But I know that today’s America has changed, especially from the America I knew in the 60’s when I was coming of age. By the way, it is generally not true that when a book is banned it becomes more popular. The censors really didn’t come after Harry Potter until it became a best seller.
It’s obvious that because of TV, movies, and the internet, young people have access to an enormous amount of visual and verbal material. Media literacy in company with written literacy is vital to our students’ education, as stated in NCTE guidelines. It is our responsibility as teachers and writers to help students sort through this morass of material. Sometimes it means introducing controversial issues into the classrooms. Teachers and librarians select the visual and literary content that is appropriate for their school settings; writers of books for young people have to do the same. It would be unrealistic to think that authors don’t ever practice self-censorship.
Take Action Jackson, the picture book Sandra Jordan and I wrote about Jackson Pollock painting Lavender Mist in his studio on Long Island. What happens if the artist led a messy, controversial life? Infidelities, alcoholism, and so on. What to leave in..what to leave out? Or should we drop the subject and choose another artist to write about? In the case of Jackson Pollock, who is considered America’s most important post WWII artist for his groundbreaking abstract paintings, his life was violent and disturbing. We didn’t want to tackle a full biography. What interested us about Pollock was his creativity –his method of unrolling the unsized canvas on the floor and dancing around it dripping paint. We wanted to examine the creative process by telling a true story about the way he made his innovative paintings. In a short bio in the back we mention briefly his turbulent life and we did extensive footnotes to demonstrate the book was non-fiction. This book is appropriate for ages 6-9. I think the illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker enhance a short and (I hope) lyrical text.
So as writers of books for children, what are we afraid of when it comes to censorship? Number one we hope our books will sell, and so do our publishers. We don’t want the censors leaning down over our shoulders, saying our books contain pornographic, offensive material, unfit for children in the schools. Yet what we fear more is a repressive society that says children have no right to read about anything that has to do with the body or any other sensitive issue from race to incest. We have to fight for intellectual freedom in a battle that never seems to be over and to be fearless in a country where I fear the censor’s fist is going to come down harder than ever.


Linda Zajac said...

I found
was helpful in understanding what went on with Sarah Palin and the Wasilla Library. Further down, there's a link to a newspaper account at the time.

Linda Zajac said...

Sorry. That link has a .html at the end that for some reason got chopped off. I'll try again

Anonymous said...

Jan, Thanks for this post about censorship. It seems to me that a vocal minority of parents are having a disproportionate say in what can and can't be said in children's literature.

Vicki Cobb said...

I was once on a panel with James Lincoln Collier whose book, My Brother Sam is Dead, was censored because the main character used the word, "Damn" upon discovering his dead brother. I was sitting there feeling that this was not my issue because who could object to my books? Then a woman in the back said about my book Science Experiments You Can Eat, "Our book committee did not buy your book because we think too much handling of food is unhealthy for children."
Go figure!